Lion of the Blogosphere

You don’t have to be that smart to be good at chess

The conventional wisdom is that you have to be smart to play chess well. I think the conventional wisdom on this is entirely wrong.

I will point out again that g (the general factor of intelligence) is the ability to reason and learn. Furthermore, g applies mostly to a specific type of learning, learning by reasoning. Learning by memorization or learning by mimicking are not g-intensive tasks. Learning Japanese seems to me to be a very difficult task, but even stupid children in Japan are able to speak it fluently. Thus not all difficult mental tasks are highly g-loaded. Children learn to speak by mimicking and not by reasoning.

As a blog reader once pointed out to me, the way that most children learn to play chess is highly g-loaded. They are taught the rules (which are somewhat complicated and require a certain minimum level of intelligence to understand), and then they have to figure out for themselves what the correct strategies are. It’s the figuring stuff out for yourself that’s a highly g-loaded task.

Luckily for would-be chess players of only average intelligence, smart people in the past have already figured out the strategies. With proper instruction, chess doesn’t require an above average intelligence, it just requires a lot of memorization (of openings, end games, and various strategy rules), and a lot of mental concentration (to scan the board for all possible dangers and play out several moves in one’s head). Yes, it’s a difficult mental task, but not a mental task which requires reasoning or learning by reasoning. Thus we see the phenomenon of an intermediate school in the ghetto with an excellent chess team. No, this doesn’t mean that kids in Harlem are just as smart as kids in Larchmont, it means that with good instruction and lots of practice, the kids in Harlem can be trained to play chess well, just as they can understand English a lot better than much smarter kids in Japan.

This also explains the phenomenon of not-very-bright chess hustlers in Washington Square Park.

At the very highest levels of chess playing, it has been suggested that g becomes more important, because grandmasters have moved beyond the stage where they can rely on strategies figured out by others and they have to figure out new and novel advanced strategies by themselves, which is a reasoning task. But maybe with chess software to help figure out strategies, even grandmasters don’t have to be as smart as they used to be.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

December 4, 2020 at 10:43 AM

Posted in Biology, Nerdy stuff

36 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. And how about poker?


    December 4, 2020 at 11:51 AM

  2. You are partly right but talent makes difference as well.

    I have PhD in Math from MIT but my late father used to beat me at chess, even though he was a high school graduate. Neither one of us learned about chess strategies, and in other intellectual endeavors I outperformed him.
    I guess some part of his brain was better than mine.


    December 4, 2020 at 12:32 PM

    • In the past, lots of smart people weren’t educated. For example, women. Tesla said his mom was very smart and created her own novel tools and was always figuring out new and different ways to do things. Doesn’t sound too dim to me. I bet Einstein’s mom wasn’t dull either. PhD in stem is evidence of smarts, but lack of it is not evidence of middling or lesser intellect especially when the person had little or no opportunity.


      December 5, 2020 at 6:12 PM

    • My father went to an elite university majoring in physics and mathematics before becoming an engineer, studied chess his whole life and used to play 20 people at a time, but would routinely lose to my uncle on my mother’s side, a school drop out and an ambulance driver. My uncle played a lot ofsoccer, but not too much chess.

      Yakov Minster

      December 5, 2020 at 9:47 PM

      • Do plumbers and HVAC technicians make good chess players? Maybe your dad should have gotten a pipe retrofitting certification instead of an Uni degree.

        Ok, what, who's this again?

        December 7, 2020 at 6:57 PM

      • He didn’t need to, he was very handy and could fix anything after playing with it for a while, my attorney cousin is the same. I’m the black sheep in the family, but I’m genetically happy like a NAM and would rather be this way. Who needs to have brains and tons of problems? More IQ would be nice, but not at the expense of a sunny disposition. No way!

        OT, I’d bought Fussel years ago when I started following this blog and finally am wrapping my head around it. Good read, mates. Thanks!


        December 8, 2020 at 5:44 PM

      • I don’t know about IQ but a bi more care would have helped you not to dox yourself. Maybe ask the lion to remove your full name from the comment


        December 9, 2020 at 12:41 AM

      • I am certain that his name is a pseudonym and not his real name.

        Lion of the Blogosphere

        December 9, 2020 at 12:43 PM

  3. I’m guessing these kids don’t have 120+ IQs, but still probably are in the 100 range which is high for blacks


    December 4, 2020 at 2:15 PM

    • Why can’t they have 120? out of an whole school there must be some. Those kids probably will be drawn to chess because it is acceptable among blacks unlike other more practical geeky pursuits so I would imagine many of them will try it.


      December 5, 2020 at 1:31 AM

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re mostly 2 SD above the population from which they’re drawn. For blacks that’d be 115 or so. 2.5% or so of the population is +2 over their base population. A decent sized school that’s mostly black shouldn’t have much trouble scrounging up a team in the 110-120 IQ range. And that range is plenty to have a good working memory and quick thinking, plenty to make a good chess team. Actually having some good coaches and a disciplined plan for getting better at chess is more than enough to make your team ‘good’—in the sense that you win a decent share of competitions, if you’re competing against the typical ‘come as you are’ sort of teams most schools will field.


      December 5, 2020 at 4:05 PM

  4. You mentioned a part of the Hudson Valley better known as Larchmont that is boring and full of NYC urban strivers who decided to transpose themselves north of the city because they begot children and want them to avoid NAMs either in nearby Mount Vernon or the Bronx.

    Ok, what, who's this again?

    December 4, 2020 at 3:27 PM

  5. Chess is popular in prisons, where inmates have generally low IQ’s but ample time to memorize things.



    December 4, 2020 at 3:57 PM

    • One day in 9th grade math class, word went around that a 10th grader named Tompkins had been arrested for boosting cars. With everyone laughing, the teacher said, “Ah, gentlemen – I’ll have you know that Mr. Tompkins has a 180 IQ.” (school had a Wechsler-type entrance exam) Car theft (then) being a crime punishable by incarceration in state prison, that shows you that some inmates might be geniuses.

      Alonzo Portfolio

      December 6, 2020 at 3:12 PM

  6. Is this triggered by The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix? Chess is not g-loaded, so it is plausible that a pretty drug-addicted alcoholic red-headed orphan girl can beat the world champ?


    December 4, 2020 at 5:47 PM

  7. Being a chess master, like a lot of things, tests for monomania. The best way to get really good is to become obsessed with winning at chess to a degree that borders on mental illness (or at least in Fischer’s case, actually *is* mental illness). A +1 SD IQ boost will help you, it’s just that it helps you less than a +1 SD boost in monomaniacal chess obsession.

    Men seem to be far, far more prone to monomania than women, and combined with greater male propensity towards competitiveness, explains why chess competition is now and forever male-dominated, even though male physical ability is mostly irrelevant.


    December 4, 2020 at 6:21 PM

    • Castiglione and I agree with you.

      And what say you to the game at chestes? It is truely an honest kynde of enterteynmente and wittie, quoth Syr Friderick. But me think it hath a fault, whiche is, that a man may be to couning at it, for who ever will be excellent in the playe of chestes, I beleave he must beestowe much tyme about it, and applie it with so much study, that a man may assoone learne some noble scyence, or compase any other matter of importaunce, and yet in the ende in beestowing all that laboure, he knoweth no more but a game. Therfore in this I beleave there happeneth a very rare thing, namely, that the meane is more commendable, then the excellency.


      December 8, 2020 at 11:06 AM

    • Higher function monomania and higher order obsessive compulsive tendencies are result of higher IQs. Women are generally not female madmen.

      Chess is cerebral enough of a game to attract the higher IQ types but also fun and predictable enough for lower IQ types such that blacks are some of the biggest chess hustlers in NYC.

      Lion mentions that chess isn’t a g-loaded activity but so is learning any foreign language, yet a few weeks ago, Lion tweets about people in the past knowing Greek and Latin and today people do not because they are also dumb.

      Ok, what, who's this again?

      December 8, 2020 at 2:57 PM

  8. Linguists mostly think that language acquisition (learning of one’s first language) is entirely unrelated to other learning tasks and to general intelligence.


    December 4, 2020 at 6:27 PM

  9. Weird, I split 50/50 in 4 tries against the 8 y/o bot but beat the 9 y/o one easily on my first try. I guess playing a few games helped get me ‘warmed up’ from not having played in years.

    Overall I think chess is kind of boring, though. It made sense when there were no computers to play against and no video games with more complicated rules.

    My new place has a pool table. Figure I’ll learn to hustle at pool instead.

    Jokah Macpherson

    December 4, 2020 at 7:41 PM

  10. I agree with all your points. But there could still be a correlation between g and chess because the smarter kids tend to do better when they’re younger. So they’ll continue to play, practice and get better. Of course, the other kids could, too, if they stuck with it and put in the effort. But most will quit because it’s no fun losing.


    December 4, 2020 at 9:02 PM

  11. Still no Season 3 Discovery review?

    Mike Street Station

    December 5, 2020 at 9:49 AM

    • Also, when do we get the Hillbilly Elegy review? That’s straight up Lion nip on class.

      Mike Street Station

      December 7, 2020 at 5:57 AM

  12. OT:

    MEH 0910

    December 6, 2020 at 9:04 AM

  13. Chess huslters are no more then 1800 ElO strength where a GM is at least 2500+ and a world championship candidate is typically at least 2750+ (world champion Magnus Clarsen has a peek career ELO of 2889) . Huslers would lost to a GM 100 out of 100 games in any time control (slow, rapid, blitz or bullet) . They have zero positional understanding of the game e.g concepts like analyzing under time pressure, things like piece activity, key squares control, king safety, pawn structure, potential queening pawns etc.and evaluating how all this is traded for material (value of pieces and pawns) and long term winning/drawing chances.
    Top GM’s are superior in all that while being tactical wizards that can recolonize complex winning combinations if split seconds .
    You can say that the tactical part is just “monkey train” effect, but i don’t know… it seems to involve way above average pattern recognition and computational skills .

    There are only 3 ( out of about 1500) African decent among active GM’s, none of them on the top or even on the second row ( ELO 2600+) .


    December 6, 2020 at 10:52 AM

  14. Here’s the captain of that Harlem chess team today:

    Seems pretty smart. By your measure Lion, it doesn’t seem like intelligence is required for anything short of PhD level research.

    I recently started learning chess again, no doubt inspired by Queen’s Gambit. I haven’t really played since high school decades ago. It’s pretty depressing how rusty I am. Still, by doing puzzles at I feel I am quickly improving.

    What a time to be a student!!! So many learning resources available at the press of a button. Yet kids graduating high school don’t know more than we did back in the day. Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to pull my kids out of school and have them watch YouTube videos and do worksheets and reports.

    December 6, 2020 at 12:17 PM

    • Based on my son reporting from the field, that’s exactly how the kids study these days, from “some Indian guy in youtube” was the exact quote if remember it correctly. School is mainly for babysitting, socialising and setting up the framework in which they have to function and learn, it is not completely useless.


      December 8, 2020 at 3:03 PM

  15. The other Times article, from 1988, talks about a hustler named “sweet p”. Google tells me he was still playing in Washington Park in 2010, and had been since the 70s. Imagine sitting in the park for 40 years playing chess.

    December 6, 2020 at 1:22 PM

    • Sounds wonderful. Some of us have been sitting in an office cubicle for the past 40 years.

      E. Rekshun

      December 8, 2020 at 5:20 PM

  16. Thus we see the phenomenon of an intermediate school in the ghetto with an excellent chess team. No, this doesn’t mean that kids in Harlem are just as smart as kids in Larchmont, it means that with good instruction and lots of practice, the kids in Harlem can be trained to play chess well

    Sames as the academically-struggling East LA Latino high school class that “‘learned” AP Calculus (as profiled in “Stand and Deliver” in 1988).

    E. Rekshun

    December 7, 2020 at 11:05 AM

  17. I’ve always been of the view that some people have an innate skill at chess, most people don’t, and it’s only roughly related to IQ.



    December 7, 2020 at 6:18 PM

    • Wait, you’re not suggesting that among humans, there’s diversity among their biology?

      Someone should start a discussion group.


      December 8, 2020 at 7:14 PM

  18. Your favorite stereotype confirmed:



    December 7, 2020 at 9:34 PM

  19. E/t – Communicating with extraterrestrials is a bad idea. It’s like spilling all your secrets to a stranger.

    The Hollywood Left and the Liberals think all ETs should be embraced and celebrated:

    Ok, what, who's this again?

    December 9, 2020 at 10:12 AM

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: